By Bob Crawford
Shane McColgan, who joined the Connecticut Whale April 4 from the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, grew up amid the sun and surf of Manhattan Beach, California, not exactly a hockey hotbed.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, a California-bred hockey player would have been a real novelty, but according to McColgan, youth hockey in his home state is taking off.
“It’s (the level of play) pretty high, and I’ve told everyone that asks me, it goes up every year, it increases,” McColgan said in a conversation before a recent Whale game in Portland, Maine. “And you’ll see a lot of guys coming up in the next few years.”
The addition of McColgan gave the Whale two Californians on their roster, as fellow forward Casey Wellman hails from Brentwood.
Another Los Angeles area native, Ryan Hollweg, was a member of the then Hartford Wolf Pack in 2004-05 and 2005-06, and he cited the trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the LA Kings in 1988 as the impetus for his getting interested in the game. Nearly ten years younger than Hollweg, McColgan is part of a subsequent wave of California youngsters who have ridden that wave of enthusiasm.
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“I was definitely too young to remember the Gretzky trade,” McColgan said, “but just guys like (the Anaheim Ducks’) Bobby Ryan and Hollweg, guys like that, really good players that have played in the NHL and the AHL, I’m looking at following in their footsteps.”
Leaving the sands of Manhattan Beach for Kelowna and the wilds of British Columbia would seem to be the genesis of a major culture shock. For McColgan, though, just the opposite was true.
“I got really lucky with a good billet family, they’re great people,” he said. “And Kelowna, I kind of describe it as the California of Canada. It’s really nice, I go back there for a few weeks every summer and train, and I enjoy it. Hopefully I can eventually get a place there.”
Making the jump to Major Junior, too, had to be a big leap from California midget hockey, but McColgan suffered no hiccups at all, striking for 25 goals and 69 points in 71 games in 2009-10, his first year with the Rockets.
“For me it was a pretty easy transition,” said McColgan. “Coming from midget hockey [in California], obviously guys are a little bit bigger and faster and stronger, like it is here (the AHL) from the ‘Dub’ (WHL). It’s (the WHL) a great league, it’s a great development league. I think for my overall goal to play in the NHL, that was the best route for me.”
The next transition now for McColgan, who was selected by the parent New York Rangers in the fifth round (134th overall) of last summer’s NHL Draft, is to the pro ranks, where the 5-9, 170-pound centerman made his debut for the Whale in a 3-0 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton April 7.
“I’ve felt pretty good,” McColgan said of his first pro action. “The first game was kind of a feeling-out process, and after a few shifts I got pretty comfortable out there. I just want to learn as much as I can here from the guys, and it’s been pretty good so far.”
That sentiment is echoed by Whale head coach Ken Gernander, who has liked what he has seen out of McColgan to this point.
“He’s a guy that’s going to bring an offensive package, a skilled player,” Gernander said. “He’s not over-sized, but he is a feisty, competitive kid. It’s a tough role for him coming in right now, to be a center. It’s a little bit tougher position than maybe the wing positions, and I’m sure in Junior he wasn’t counted on to do as much defensively as he has been here. So it was a little bit different role, even in the same position, than he was used to.”
The other hurdle that McColgan will always have to face is the challenge of being a small player in a big man’s game. The key to overcoming that, according to Gernander, is being a good skater.
“You have to be able to use your skating ability to get in good body position,” the Whale bench boss said, “whether it be defensively or to protect the puck when you’ve got possession offensively. As long as you’ve got a good, strong base and you can maintain that body position, you can be effective.”
So far, so good for McColgan on that score, is Gernander’s evaluation.
“He’s definitely a willing player,” Gernander said. “He’s not shy to compete and battle for loose pucks and do things of that nature. It’s just going to be a little bit of an adjustment period, and he is a little bit behind the curve from a development standpoint, in that some of these guys have been playing pro hockey for years upon years, and he’s a young kid coming right out of Junior. So it’ll take him some time to get acclimated.”
That is fine with McColgan, who is not about to get impatient with his own personal developmental curve.
“For now I’m just going to learn as much as I can,” he said, “and probably come back next year with Kelowna and have a good season there and come as a 20-year-old here (the AHL) and play like I can. And that’s when it really starts.”
McColgan began his pro tenure at the same time as another 19-year-old former Ranger draftee up from the Junior ranks, fellow forward Christian Thomas. And though Thomas is a Canadian and played his Junior hockey in the Ontario League, McColgan reports that he and Thomas have formed some good chemistry since arriving simultaneously in Connecticut.
“Me and him are rooming together for the time that we’re here and we’re bonding pretty well,” McColgan said of Thomas. “And obviously he plays in the OHL, they’re a little different leagues, but he’s definitely a great player, he has one of the best shots I’ve probably ever seen. I can see him on the same line as me, for sure, in the future.”
That would undoubtedly be just fine with the Rangers, who have as good a “home-grown”, internally-developed character to their roster these days as any team in the NHL.